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Modi’s Shocking Move: Will India’s Secularism Survive the Uniform Civil Code?

The ongoing debate revolves around the question: Will Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s push for a Uniform Civil Code (UCC) undermine the country’s concept of secularism? As India approaches its next general election in ten months, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by Modi has rekindled a longstanding campaign to establish a single law governing civil relationships among citizens. However, in a diverse nation like India, the notion of uniformity is deeply contentious.

While criminal laws are universally applicable, distinct communities, including the majority Hindus (966 million), Muslims (213 million), Christians (26 million), and tribal groups (104 million), adhere to their own civil laws influenced by religious doctrines and cultural traditions. Modi has been actively advocating for a UCC, envisioning a system that replaces the current array of personal laws with a unified framework for matters such as marriage, divorce, succession, adoption, guardianship, and property division.

Proponents of the UCC argue that a modern nation should eliminate the need for “dual laws,” emphasizing that a common civil code could reduce gender discrimination present in personal laws. Specifically, the BJP has criticized India’s Muslim personal laws for their perceived bias against women. Yet, activists point out that gender prejudice extends across civil rules followed by various communities. Supporters contend that a UCC could contribute to national integration.

Nonetheless, the Modi government has not yet unveiled a draft of what the UCC might entail. Opposition parties accuse the BJP of exploiting the proposal for political gain, potentially portraying minorities as regressive in the run-up to the 2024 elections.

Religious minorities and tribal communities express apprehensions that a uniform code could infringe upon their constitutional rights to religious freedom and cultural preservation by imposing state-defined norms. These concerns arise from India’s historical divisions along religious and ethnic lines, which have escalated since Modi assumed power in 2014, accompanied by the rise of Hindu majoritarianism and increased minority targeting.

This contentious issue might escalate as the Indian Law Commission, responsible for advising the government on legal reforms, has received over 7.5 million responses from stakeholders, including religious organizations, after soliciting public opinions.

So, does India truly need a Uniform Civil Code? What changes could such a code bring about? Are there any potential benefits, and what risks does this proposal carry?

In essence, regardless of the specific details of a UCC, adopting such a code would fundamentally deviate from India’s approach to secularism. Unlike the West, where religious practices are often superseded by secular laws, India has allowed diverse communities to follow their respective religious practices in areas such as marriage, divorce, inheritance, and property rights. Experts argue that while personal laws might require reforms, the path towards implementing a UCC must be guided by consensus, rather than being driven solely by political motives in an election year. Such a political maneuver could have grave consequences for the world’s largest democracy.

Differing Paths of Secularism

The concept of a uniform civil code is not unique to India. Other multicultural nations have embraced single laws governing personal relationships. Countries like France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Portugal, Ireland, Egypt, and Turkey have established common personal laws. In the United States, different states have their local laws, but the US Supreme Court has the authority to impose nationwide rules. While religious freedom exists, the US Constitution takes precedence over individual religious doctrines.

India, too, has debated personal laws extensively. The draft Hindu Code Bill, aimed at ending caste-based discrimination and empowering women, was initially proposed in British India’s central legislative assembly in 1947. After independence, the Hindu Code Bills were introduced in 1948 in India’s constituent assembly. Hindu nationalists opposed these bills, considering them a threat to Hindu society.

The idea of a Uniform Civil Code was incorporated in the constitution’s directive principles – indicating that the state was not obligated to implement it immediately and should do so only with the consensus of all communities. Despite debates, Hindu Code Bills were passed in the form of various acts in 1955 and 1956, strengthening women’s rights within marriages, separation, divorce, and inheritance.

Debate Resurfaces and Political Maneuvering

The debate resurfaced in 1985 during the Shah Bano case, leading to a complex tangle of social and legal discussions. While initiatives for personal law reforms could be well-intentioned, the challenge lies in striking a balance between modernizing laws and respecting cultural identities.

The BJP, aiming to be a champion of gender equality, has sought to position itself as a defender of Muslim women’s rights against practices like ‘triple talaq,’ where a Muslim man could divorce his wife by uttering “talaq” thrice. While the BJP’s efforts have garnered attention, critics argue that the party’s concern for Muslim women is potentially a guise to cast Islam in a negative light. Additionally, the state’s actions, such as interfaith marriage bans in several states and instances of violence against minorities, raise concerns about the BJP’s true intentions.

It is crucial to recognize that a uniform civil code should not just focus on reforms based on gender justice but must be approached with careful consideration for the unique cultural practices of each community. A rushed, top-down approach is likely to breed mistrust and deepen societal divisions. Critics also emphasize that uniformity should not become the ultimate goal, as it contradicts the essence of India’s secular fabric.

In conclusion, the debate surrounding the Uniform Civil Code in India is a complex interplay of cultural, political, and legal considerations. While personal laws indeed need to evolve, any meaningful reforms should arise from consensus and dialogue, rather than being wielded as political tools for electoral gains. India’s diverse population requires a comprehensive approach that respects cultural identities while striving for a just and equitable legal framework.

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